Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

So Hard to Handle Print-ready version

by John Lahr
London Review of Books
February 22, 2018

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe
Farrar, Straus, 420 pp, £20.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 374 24813 0

With her high cheekbones and her flaxen hair, Joni Mitchell emerged in the late 1960s as some kind of hippy Venus with an overbite. She was the personification of the New Woman, liberated by the pill and by her talent to take ownership of her body, her art and her destiny. She was thoughtful, feisty, free-wheeling, ‘open to experience and in touch with the miraculous’, as she put it. Her precocious songs chronicled the complexity of her newly claimed agency; they meditated on liberty and longing, love and lust, independence and loneliness. ‘I’m a living storybook,’ she said of her autobiographical catalogue. In her thrilling falsetto Mitchell told of ‘love’s illusion’ before we knew quite what either love or disillusion was. Her songs calmed the mind of a turbulent, panic-struck society. ‘Before Prozac, there was you,’ two teenage fans once told her.

The effect of Mitchell’s spell was as immediate on her musical peers as on the public. ‘Fantastic girl with heaven words,’ Jimi Hendrix noted in his diary after their first, brief meeting. ‘She just knocked me on my ass,’ David Crosby said after hearing her sing ‘Both Sides, Now’. ‘It was the highest quality of songwriting. I liked her better than Dylan.’ Crosby briefly became Mitchell’s inamorato and produced her first album. Leonard Cohen, another influential early lover, helped too. ‘There was a certain ferocity associated with her gift. She was like a storm,’ Cohen said. ‘She was fully formed: uneducated, uninformed, uninstructed, unneeding of any kind of influences.’ Cohen encouraged Mitchell’s darkness, gave her reading lists, and would later write in a poem to her: ‘You changed the way women sing and the way men listen.’ At the time, he also dubbed her ‘Queen Undisputedly of Mind Beauty’. Sam Shepard, who hooked up with Mitchell when they were both on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, was intimidated by her intelligence, according to Mitchell. Shepard, himself a drummer, tipped his cowboy hat to her. ‘Her word manoeuvrings tend to verge on the uncanny. “I got a head full of quandary and a mighty, mighty, mighty thirst,”’ he said, quoting ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’. ‘She seems to have merged into a unique jazz structure with lyrics and rhythmic construction and even managed to bite the masses in the ear with it.’

Mitchell, who was self-taught – a baritone ukulele first, then the guitar from a Pete Seeger instruction record – invented everything about her music, including how to tune the guitar. ‘From the beginning of the process of writing, she’s building a canvas as well as she is putting on the paint,’ James Taylor, another conquest, explained. ‘It’s never straight on.’ Mitchell’s lyrical indirection, the habit of thinking against conventional tropes, is an extension of what she calls her ‘perverse need for originality’, a manifestation of a rebellious temperament forged in the provincial prairie vastness of Saskatoon, Canada, where, as Roberta Joan Anderson, she grew up the only child of Myrtle, a former teacher, and William, a military man turned grocery store executive. ‘People that shouldn’t have been married, really,’ Mitchell said, and from whom ‘I never had any support.’

‘I respect faith, but doubt gets you an education,’ the playwright and conman Wilson Mizner once said. This was certainly true of Mitchell who, from an early age, doubted the authority of her parents. ‘Their judgment was so sucky all the time.’ As a toddler she had a recurring nightmare of her father losing control of the car. ‘These people are not thinking and I’m small and in their care. Help!’ She continued: ‘So I had to be my own person very young.’ At the age of seven, she disabused herself of religion ‘because Genesis raised a lot of questions for me’. At the age of ten, in 1953, Mitchell was diagnosed with polio and hospitalised for months hundreds of miles from home. (Her mother visited her once, her father never came.) She refused the doctors’ grim medical prognosis. ‘I came back a dancer,’ she said, adding, ‘I celebrated my legs.’ (‘I want to wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive,’ she sang in ‘All I Want’.) From that moment, Mitchell formed the habit of watching herself go by, a strategy which would ultimately feed her songwriting process. (‘It’s like going into a trance,’ she said. ‘I sit down with a melody and reminisce. I find it easier to think about my feelings in retrospect.’)

Growing up, Mitchell became a dandy of detachment. She rejected the educational system. ‘I saw from an early age that it taught you what to think, not how to think,’ she said, characterising herself as ‘anti-intellectual to the nth’. Regarded as a ‘dunce’ in primary school and seated at the back of the class with the slackers, she decided, ‘I’m not even gonna try from here on, until they ask a question that nobody knows the answer to.’ (In 12th grade, she managed to fail maths, chemistry and biology and had to repeat the year.) Mitchell’s only high school interests were dancing, art and burnishing her legend of defiant originality. She cast herself variously as polio victor, rebel, painter, poet, fashion plate (‘very well dressed’), taste maker (‘I started fads and I stopped them’). She made an exhibition of her separation from others: ‘Joan does not relate well’ was a recurring phrase in her report cards. ‘I know that I was aloof. Perhaps some people thought that I was a snob.’ As she sang in ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’, her revolt into style promoted the notion of herself as a ‘wild seed’, a spectacle which thumbed her turned-up nose at her conservative mother who in Mitchell’s eyes was ‘a bigot’ with ‘no displays of emotionality’. (Myrtle thought Joan a pain in the ass. ‘Don’t have kids when you get grown’ was her advice to her daughter.) The ructions between mother and daughter helped propel the restless, adventurous Mitchell into the wider world.

She don’t like my kick pleat skirt
She don’t like my eyelids painted green
She don’t like me staying up late
In my high-heeled shoes
Living for that rock’n’roll dancing scene

‘Let The Wind Carry Me’

‘I never acknowledged myself as a writer. That gift had to be drawn out by tragedy, it seems,’ Mitchell said. When she entered Alberta College of Art and Design in 1964 she thought of herself as a painter, and of folk music as a ‘hobby’. She became pregnant in her first year and fled to Toronto to hide it from her parents. Living on $15 a week, surviving on Ingersoll cheese spread and Hovis bread, Joni Anderson, as she then was, began singing in coffee houses for chump change. When her daughter, Kelly Dale, was born, she put her into care. ‘That really tore her apart,’ said Vicky Taylor, another folk singer with whom Mitchell shared an apartment. ‘She knew that she couldn’t be a single mum and do anything with her music. It was a really hard decision to make.’ By then Joni had formed a singing partnership with Chuck Mitchell, a 29-year-old university-educated American, ‘my first major exploiter, a complete asshole,’ she said, adding, ‘He liked my body, but he didn’t like my mind. He was always insulting me because he had the pride of the well-educated, which is frequently academic stupidity.’ Reader, she married him.

Before their marriage, Chuck Mitchell had offered to take on Kelly Dale; once they were married and getting work as a duo, he reneged. Feeling betrayed and trapped, Joni put Kelly Dale up for adoption. (They were reunited 32 years later in 1997.) No matter how she later rationalised the decision, Mitchell sacrificed her child to her talent. Her hapless marriage limped along for a couple of years. ‘I felt that I couldn’t grow with Chuck,’ she said. As she put it in ‘I Had King’, her epitaph of the marriage of inconvenience:

I can’t go back there anymore
You know my keys won’t fit the door
You know my thoughts don’t fit the man
They never can they never can

‘If you make a good marriage, God bless you,’ Mitchell told Tavis Smiley, a talk show host, in 2014. ‘If you don’t, become a philosopher.’ Trouble turned Mitchell into what she called ‘an unschooled thinker with a gift for blarney and metaphor’. She kept her husband’s name and his advice to set up her own music publishing company. She became a theoretician of her desires:

Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow

‘Down to You’

Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some
I love you some
I love you when I forget about me

‘All I Want’

Oh, won’t you stay
We’ll put on the day
And we’ll talk in present tenses

‘Chelsea Morning’

‘I sing my sorrows and paint my joy,’ Mitchell said. Singing stops stuttering; in Mitchell’s case, it also stopped grieving. ‘I am a woman of heart and mind,’ she insisted in song, turning her loss into legend. ‘With time on her hands/No child to raise.’ At 21, she gave up her daughter. When she was 22 Mitchell wrote ‘Urge for Going’; at 23, ‘Both Sides, Now’ and ‘The Circle Game’ – all big hits which were covered by many singers. Before Mitchell had cut her first album, Song of the Seagull in 1967, she had already amassed a catalogue of about twenty memorable songs, a lifetime’s work for most songwriters. As soon as she started singing her own material, her voice as well as her life changed. (‘Now me I play for fortune/And those velvet curtain calls,’ she sang in ‘For Free’.) Many of her songs, Mitchell claimed, were messages in a bottle to her abandoned daughter. (‘And her heart is full and hollow/Like a cactus tree/While she’s so busy being free,’ she wrote in the final song on her debut album.) Subsequently, she mythologised her daughter as ‘Little Green’ (‘call her green for the children who have made her’). The glamour of Mitchell’s words made loss beautiful and forgiveness possible. ‘You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed/Little Green, have a happy ending.’

The shrewdness of Mitchell’s precise, painterly vocabulary (‘the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses’; ‘You stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear’) is matched in her songs by the emotional intelligence of her harmonic language. Over the years, her increasing musical sophistication attracted a number of jazz masters as collaborators: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Mingus, Jaco Pastorious. ‘A lot of my work, my complex chords contain emotional nuances that are forbidden within the laws of music,’ she said. ‘But craving freshness and also craving to express my emotions – and not knowing the rules – I bypassed them, broke the rules. Because I’m abundantly sensitive, I worked and worked and worked to be able to achieve clarity.’ Nowhere is her voice more poetic and prophetic than in ‘Woodstock’, which put words to the radical nostalgia behind the protean transformations of the 1960s ‘flower children’:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Mitchell’s work is distinguished by its limpid emotions. The same can’t be said for David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, which can be read either as a fan letter or as the longest liner notes in history. In his preface, Yaffe tells of being ‘bitched out’ by Mitchell years ago for describing her Beverley Hills home as ‘middle-class’ in a New York Times piece. ‘I don’t know what you think of as middle-class, but I live in a mansion, my property has many rooms, I have Renaissance antiques,’ she scolded him. In Reckless Daughter, Yaffe seems determined to redeem his mortifying faux pas. Genuflection not reflection is the name of his game. Behind Yaffe’s gee-whizzery is a deep knowledge of the music world and a relish for the music he describes, but he makes a rookie biographical mistake: to show brilliance you have to have shadow.

Reckless Daughter is organised around Mitchell’s 16 albums, over which Yaffe pores groove by groove. As he climbs the majestic mountain of Mitchell’s music he switches back and forth to what he perceives as the changes each album reflects in her story and her personality. It’s a tricky biographical approach, which works on the principle of brass-rubbing: the more you go over the outline, the greater the definition. In the finest critical hands, this would be a descriptive challenge; for a writer as careless as Yaffe, it’s impossible. Part of the problem is linguistic. Mitchell has an exquisite ear for language, Yaffe has a tin one. She is obscured beneath his peppy palaver. A few eye-popping examples must stand for many:

Riding in a limo while cities rioted, Joni felt history breathing down her neck.

For someone who captured the Geist in the Zeit of the Sixties.

Most decades don’t officially begin in their first year.

Joni was at the pinnacle of civilisation and hygiene.

Yaffe’s name-checking of cultural figures outside his musical comfort zone can also be jaw-dropping. Dick Cavett, for instance, whose popular TV talk show was Mitchell’s first American primetime exposure in 1969 and the reason she missed headlining at Woodstock: ‘Cavett was a Yale grad in the showbiz tradition of Cole Porter’? What?! Excuse me? Porter was a defining creator of Broadway musicals; Cavett was a stand-up comedian who never set one loafered foot on a Broadway stage. And then there’s Marlon Brando who, according to Yaffe, came to prominence with On the Waterfront (1954), missing by the best part of a decade his volcanic performance as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), which made him a household name. Speaking of the emotional state into which Mitchell worked herself while recording her confessional masterpiece Blue (1971), which sold more than ten million copies in the US alone, Yaffe says. ‘There was no Method for the singer-songwriter. Joni was on her own and she was feeling it.’ Mitchell claimed that while making the record people became transparent to her, she felt porous and defenceless, ‘like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes’. ‘We locked off the Blue sessions. Nobody could come in. If anybody came in, I’d burst into tears,’ she said, adding, ‘Was it a nervous breakdown?’ Great singers are actors; they inhabit the moods of their songs. Mitchell was instinctively doing exactly what Method actors do: keeping her performing self in the emotional reality of her songs.

In venerating Mitchell as some kind of household god, Yaffe’s worship unwittingly puts her under a pedestal. ‘Her jive detector was never wrong,’ he assures us, allowing to pass unremarked Mitchell’s own malarkey, like comparing herself to Ingmar Bergman or claiming that the trauma of giving up her daughter turned her into a sociologist of song who ‘mothered the world and looked at the world in which my child was roaming’. He invokes Dickens, Rembrandt and Beethoven as ‘her peer group’. Like some medieval knight protecting his ‘queen of queens’, he defends her against nay-saying critics and tilts at Rolling Stone for calling her ‘Queen of El Lay’ (‘It was deeply unfair’); he pulls his punches about Mitchell’s ugly assault on her maid in 1985, which Mitchell claimed was a set-up (the case was settled out of court). When Mitchell is reunited with her abandoned daughter, now called Kilauren Gibbs, a model and mother of two – a meeting which over time lost a lot of its shine – Yaffe takes Mitchell’s side of the story (‘Joni had decided Kilauren was a “damaged person”’) only to go one meretricious step further by quoting a ‘friend’ who says that Kilauren ‘was a far cry from Joni’ and a ‘bar-room bitch’.

Yaffe displays no psychological curiosity about his subject; he never asks the forbidden question: why such an apparently attractive, talented, literate and open person found enduring relationships so confounding. For the answer the reader has to read between the lines of Mitchell’s lyrics and the scraps of quoted material imported, mostly without attribution, from Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind, Susan Lacy’s excellent PBS documentary. ‘I’m so hard to handle/I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby I ever had,’ Mitchell sang in ‘River’, a requiem for her consanguineous relationship with Graham Nash, whose marriage proposal she accepted, then declined. ‘I just started thinking: my grandmother was a frustrated poet and musician. She kicked the kitchen door off the hinges,’ Mitchell said. ‘And I thought maybe I’m the one that got the gene who has to make it happen … As much as I cared for Graham, I thought: “I’ll end up like my grandmother, kicking the door off the hinges.” It’s like: “I better not.” And it broke my heart.’

‘I made it my life’s work to figure out what love was, to analyse my capacity for it; hopefully to increase my capacity for it,’ she said in 1988. ‘Send me somebody/Who’s strong and somewhat sincere,’ she prays in ‘The Same Situation’. The song continues:

I called out to be released
Caught in my struggle for higher achievement
And my search for love
That don’t seem to cease

Mitchell’s relationships all seem to be essentially a ménage à trois: her, her man, and her music. Cohabiting with Mitchell meant living with an absent presence. ‘It was an interesting clash of “I want to get as close to you as possible” and “leave me alone to create,”’ Nash said. ‘It’s almost like she channels. She was gone for hours, she was physically there, but she wasn’t listening.’ Intimacy requires equality. Mitchell’s particular genius made that an impossibility; and loneliness an inevitability. ‘I love the bustle of a room of people interacting where perhaps I am apart but busy on my own project.’

‘Old songs are more than tunes,’ the playwright Ben Hecht said. ‘They are little houses in which our hearts once lived.’ In the unmoored late 1960s, the great songs and the singers who were their messengers became the unofficial legislators of the times. ‘We were channeling some kind of reality that none of us was living. The songs were much better than we were,’ Leonard Cohen wrote. This paradox seems to have occurred to Mitchell too. ‘How would people feel if they knew how I really was?’ she asked. She was a curious mixture of fragile and fierce, who went from jejune folkie to battle-hardened pro in a hurry. ‘I was so feminine then, I’m my own man now,’ she said in the mid-1970s. Like many successful autodidacts, Mitchell was her own greatest invention; humble pie was not on her menu. ‘She was about as modest as Mussolini,’ according to David Crosby. Asked by one interviewer how she should be described – composer, songwriter, singer, painter – Mitchell said about her talent: ‘I don’t know what you’d call it. It’s definitely Renaissance.’

Around the time Mitchell was recording Turbulent Indigo (1994) which won a Grammy for Album of the Year, she told the Canadian singer-songwriter Donald Freed, one of her squeezes at the time, that she was ‘undervalued’. The flipside of her sense of grievance is ingratitude. ‘I can’t really speak my mind without stepping on people,’ she admitted. Arthur Krazman, the high school teacher who inspired her – ‘You have to learn to paint and write in your own blood,’ he told her – and to whom she dedicated her first album, ‘resented my success … He let me down’; Judy Collins, who brought out the first recording of ‘Both Sides, Now’, Mitchell’s first Top Ten record, is dismissed as ‘la-di-dah’; Bob Dylan, who was a crucial influence on her songwriting, is a ‘perverse little brat’; Larry Klein, her bassist-husband from 1982 to 1992, who produced Mitchell’s recordings in that period, is a ‘dwarf’. David Geffen, who was Mitchell’s first agent and in whose Los Angeles mansion she lived for a while, is obliquely dissed as a crook. In fact, every record producer is a ‘leech’, a ‘babysitter’, ‘an interior decorator for people who are lazy or not full artists’. Mitchell added: ‘I decorated my own house.’

‘The carousel of time’ has given Mitchell quite a ride. Ill-health, insomnia, money problems and disenchantment with the record industry have laid her low, combining to turn the youthful philosophical equanimity of ‘The Circle Game’ into the corrosive dyspepsia of old age, which has grown to Old Testament proportions. ‘Let me speak, let me spit out my bitterness,’ she sings in ‘The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)’, a sour lament in which Mitchell identifies herself with the sorely tested Job:

Once I was blessed; I was awaited like the rain
Like eyes for the blind, like feet for the lame
Kings heard my words, and they sought out my company
But now the janitors of Shadowland flick their brooms at me
Oh you tireless watcher! What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true

In 2007, Mitchell was struck down with Morgellons disease, a rare and controversial skin disorder characterised by sores, crawling sensations on and under the skin, and, as Mitchell described it, ‘fibres in a variety of colours protruding out of my skin like mushrooms’. She has become something of a spokeswoman for the condition, which most doctors consider psychological in origin. The disease sidelined her not just from her music but from her life. She was in ‘relentless pain’, she said. ‘I couldn’t wear clothing. I couldn’t leave my house for several years. Sometimes it got so bad I’d have to crawl across the floor. My legs would cramp up, just like a polio spasm. It hit all of the places where I had polio.’ The condition brought with it brain fog, lethargy and irritability. (‘I’m angry, which is the low end of insanity in Buddhist terms,’ she said.) Illness more or less put paid to expressiveness. ‘My creative energy went into survival,’ she said, adding: ‘If things are going smooth, in the spurts of health that I have, I just go out and enjoy, which is the right thing to do because it’s a respite. A little R&R before the next battle.’ In 2015, Mitchell was found unconscious on her kitchen floor, where she’d been lying for three days with brain trauma after a ruptured aneurysm. For a while her speech and memory were affected.

Mitchell’s parlous physical state leaves Yaffe with no drumroll for his finale. Although he’s happy to quote Mitchell and others on the specifics of her music, he shies away from using her own vivid accounts of her decline. His narrative goal is somehow to preserve her in the Superbia of his imagination. To that end, in the last pages, he shows her buttressed by her art and by her family. At the successful premiere of The Fiddle and The Drum, a 2008 ballet written to her music, she takes a solo bow to a standing audience. There is the pride and pleasure she takes in her teenage grandchildren. Yaffe fondly thinks these grace notes signal some sort of surcease of Mitchell’s loneliness, an escape from her cave of consciousness. Psychologically obtuse to the end, he can’t hear what’s being transmitted beneath Mitchell’s conversation. Instead of leaving the reader moved, Yaffe leaves him laughing. ‘She’s learning the ukulele,’ Mitchell confides to him about Daisy, her granddaughter. ‘I asked her if she could play something and she said, “Oh, no. I’m only in my second year.” Second year? I had mastered it in six months.’

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Comments on So Hard to Handle

Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.

You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.

Facebook comments